Tag Archives: St Thomas Church Winchelsea

Church of St Thomas, Winchelsea (2)

For centuries following the invasions by the French and Spanish, the church fell into a state of serious neglect and disrepair.  The seventeenth century diarist John Evelyn described the ‘forlorn ruins’, and in the early nineteenth century it was described as ‘almost unfit for public worship.  The restoration of the church to its present beautiful condition has almost all been completed within the last 150 years.

Because the church originally formed part (the chancel) of a cathedral-size building, its proportions are consistent with that initial intent.  Most imposing of all are the stained glass windows.  The windows were designed by Douglas Strachan (1875-1950) and were dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1933.

Click images to enlarge

The theme is Death and Ressurection

The main theme is the First Death. Adam, the first man, stands over the body of his dead son and shows in his face the agony of the first realisation of death

In the bottom right of the above window, Edward I examines the new church.

In the north and south walls are effigies which, it is believed, were retrieved from the church in Old Winchelsea before it was completely submerged.  They would therefore be more than 700 years old.

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Church of St Thomas, Winchelsea

The small, sedate village of Winchelsea is the offspring of what was once a significant port and essential component of the line of ports defending the south coast of England against invasions by the French and Spanish.  They were identified as the Cinque Ports.  Although Rye and Winchelsea were not included in the original five, they became Associate Ports of Hastings to strengthen that port’s resistance.

But during the thirteenth century disaster struck, twice.  In 1250 Old Winchelsea was partly submerged by excessively high tides and in 1287 the town was totally destroyed by further flooding, probably due to subterranean subsidence.  At the same time the estuary silted up.  Winchelsea’s days were done.

But King Edward I wasted no time in rebuilding Winchelsea, this time on higher ground a mile or so inland.  The king ordered plans to be drawn using a grid lay-out, similar to that of the bastides in France.  At the heart there would be a splendid church, built to the highest standards of Gothic design and craftsmanship.  Work on the church began in 1288.

It is obvious from these pictures that the church as it is now is not as it was originally planned.  Three theories have gained support: (i) that the church was never completed (although excavations in the twentieth century indicate that a nave did once exist); (ii) that part of the church was deliberately demolished because of the cost of maintenance and upkeep; (iii) that the destruction was caused by the invading French in 1360 and then, twenty years later, by the Spanish.  Local legend prefers the last of these three explanations although there is little evidence to confirm the belief.

Footnote  The comedian ‘Spike’ Milligan is buried in this churchyard.  He had once quipped that on his gravestone he wanted the epitaph ‘I told you I was ill!’  Sadly, the diocese officials felt that this was inappropriate.  But a compromise was reached.  It was translated into Gaelic, accompanied by the English words ‘Love, Light and Peace.’!!

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